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RSA Says “No Reason” UK Cities Should Not Aim for 1Gbps Broadband

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 (10:33 am) - Score 1,261
City of london square mile united kingdom

In its final report the RSA’s City Growth Commission, which has been looking at ways of boosting the United Kingdom’s long-term economic prospects, has today recommended that the Government attempt to “emulate” Singapore by aiming for ultrafast broadband speeds of 1Gbps [1000 Megabits] “in the near future” across our cities.

The recommendations follow an initial report in July 2014, which among other things criticised national telecoms giants BT and Virgin Media for working to “constrain supply and market competition” in urban areas (here). The restrictions imposed under EU State Aid rules, which are understandably less accepting of public investment being used to improve connectivity in areas where good broadband coverage already exists, also took some criticism.

But today’s report goes much further and suggests that UK cities would benefit from “devo max” (devolution) style powers, like the ones that Scotland could soon benefit from; giving them more control over local tax and spending. Likewise it also called for digital infrastructure to be given a boost in order to “drive additional inward investment to our cities“.

RSA – Digital Infrastructure Recommendation

The Commission repeatedly heard from organisations and local authorities about the constraints on the supply of high-speed broadband. We therefore call for government to launch a comprehensive review on how our current and future needs for digital infrastructure can be met. We should also be ambitious about what we are aiming to achieve – the UK has a burgeoning digital industry and other sectors are increasingly dependent on access to fast, reliable connections.

There is no reason why we should not seek to emulate Singapore’s 1Gb/s broadband speeds in the near future, the minimum needed to drive additional inward investment to our cities.

To date, large numbers of small businesses in cities and town centres have been excluded from the commercial rollout of fibre access services (an issue recently acknowledged by Ofcom).

While several metros have sought to address this market failure with public investment, strict EU State Aid rules have proven prohibitive. Some tough decisions are needed to complete the current transformation of our digital infrastructure. These decisions need to be made in partnership with the regulator, incumbent suppliers, and wider industry and public services in order to deliver a network capable of being best in Europe.

For example, as mobile users increasingly demand more capacity and higher speeds, the UK needs to ensure network operators are able to access the level of fixed connectivity required; investment in a fibre backhaul infrastructure would help support wider 4G and future 5G deployment.

But the issue of using state aid to improve broadband connectivity in cities is likely to remain a contentious one. Indeed it’s generally expected that the private sector should have less trouble making the case for investment in areas with a dense population. Indeed operators like Hyperoptic, CityFibre (with assistance from TalkTalk and Sky Broadband), Zayo Group (GEO Networks) and others are already making big investments into urban areas.

But when Birmingham’s original Smart City project proposed to build a new fibre optic network, which was designed to be “genuinely open to all operators and will therefore promote competition“, it was blocked by a legal challenge from BT and Virgin Media over fears that it could overlap with their own slower hybrid-fibre infrastructure (here),

Lest we not forget that both BT and Virgin Media are already rolling out faster connectivity in the cities, although admittedly most of their 1Gbps links tend to be for dedicated business purposes and sold as expensive leased line style solutions rather than consumer affordable connectivity like in Japan, South Korea or Sweden etc.

Lately we’ve seen a variety of reports calling for faster connectivity across the United Kingdom, not least from a group of Labour Party activists that demanded a “national focus on connectivity” and the delivery of 1000Mbps (1Gbps) broadband to all homes and offices; with 10Gps connections for business hubs like Tech City (here). But finding the money for such things, proving wide-scale demand, making it affordable, applying a realistic time-scale and resolving significant state aid concerns are just some of the obstacles that would first have to be overcome.

At the same time there are technologies like G.fast and DOCSIS3.1 just around the corner, which all make bold claims about Gigabit speeds, but actually delivering that to end-users is not nearly so clear cut as it is on a more expensive but reliable direct fibre optic (FTTH/P) connection. Lest we not forget the proximity of next year’s General Election, which is an event often epitomised by big promises and minimal delivery.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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